Claiming assault as justified, pro-monarchy group raises fears of hate crimes

Vocational Students Protecting the Institution have admitted that their members took part in assaults of a photojournalist and another citizen after a protest on 22 April. Despite the attacker being temporarily banished from the group, concerns remain over media safety and the likelihood of further hate crimes.

A photo of the Vocational Students Protecting the Institution during their Facebook livestreaming. From the right: Akkhrawut Kraisisombat, Benyaphakon  Wikhabamphoeng and Oh.

In a Facebook live post on its page at 17.30 on Sunday 24 April, Akkhrawut Kraisisombat, leader of the group, appeared with another three members who appeared with him during the attack on Friday night.

Third from the left is Benyaphakon ‘Ben’ Wikhabamphoeng, who admitted attacking Natthaphon Phanphongsanon, a photojournalist at 21.00, and another man shortly later at 23.45 at the same place.

Benyaphakon said he attacked Natthaphon out of self-defence as Natthaphon was taunting him after asking why he was looking at him and calling his friends to attack him after some words were exchanged.

During the whole Facebook clip, Benyaphakon could be seen refusing to admit that Natthaphon was a journalist due to his failure to produce any cards or telephone on demand. This argument was supported by others in the clip, saying that the press should have some identification, otherwise anyone with a telephone can claim to be the media.

Benyaphakon also admitted that he was the one who attacked another man after attacking Natthapon, claiming that he remembered that the man was a front-line protester who usually confronts the police. After finding him trying to make a ruckus, he punched him in the eye.

“I think I wasn’t wrong, because I didn’t know if he had a weapon or not. He was drunk too. Besides, he was in the line that clashed with the police. He would at least have some weapon. And he came almost close to me. I had to stop the incident first,” said Benyaphakon.

Another group member sitting at Benyaphakon’s right, nicknamed Oh, admitted taking out a knife during the second attack. He explained that he brought it out for self-defence after seeing the punched man go inside McDonald's to grab something that looked like a weapon.

Oh with his knife on his right hand.

“I saw that it looked like a weapon. I’m not saying it was. I only saw that it looked like a weapon. I wouldn’t use my knife that I brought along with me to peel fruit to eat. I’m not that optimistic to wait for them to hit me first,” said Oh.

The clip was made after the group's public statement posted on the group’s page a few minutes earlier, saying that the group would take responsibility for the violence committed by its member by banning Benyaphakon from performing his duty as a group member until the legal process is finished.

Akkrawuth said in the clip that after hearing the explanations of Benyaphakon and Oh, he did not feel that they were in the wrong. He and others expressed dissatisfaction over the activities that had been taking place around the path of the royal processions and the calls for ‘revolution, not reform’.

“I want to know, if I trample on people who think of revolution, am I wrong? Is it wrong if I trample on you lot? The Constitution says I fucking can, because it gives us the right to protect the institutions of the nation, religions and monarchy. We are here to protect them,” said Akkhrawut.

Benyaphakon is shown having his group scarf being stripped from him by Akkhrawut, a symbolic action of temporarily banishing him from the group. Benyaphakon also said he would admit the legal responsibility that came afterward.

Fear remains

Despite the group’s claims, CCTV footage showed that Benyaphakon was the one who started punching Natthaphon as he stepped down from his motorcycle and walked away. 

On a Facebook clip that displayed the second attack, Benyaphakon, in a different outfit from when he was attacking Natthaphon, rushed to punch a man as he was speaking with another man. However, the conversations and surrounding evidence must be further collected by both sides should the victim decide to lodge a legal complaint.

On 25 April, Prachatai contacted Pol Lt Col Thanakrit Chaksuwan of Chana Songkram Police Station who recorded Natthaphon’s complaint on Friday night. He said that the police would send a summons to the attacker and schedule further investigation with the victim.

Natthapon told Prachatai via telephone on Monday (24 April) that his wounds were healing well and he can now raise his arms better than yesterday. He said that in the CCTV footage he was waving his arms in an attempt to call for help from a person who looked like a plainclothes policeman standing nearby, but he did not come.

The photojournalist said that his helmet has a big ‘PRESS’ sticker around it, a symbol widely used to identify the media. It was perhaps the reason Benyaphakon asked him if he was the media or not before he was attacked after he refused to show him his phone.

Beside being hit by Benyaphakon’s fist and club, Natthaphon said he was kicked and kneed by another man as he was trying to run back into McDonalds.

The photojournalist said that the police had contacted him twice on Monday. The first time at 10.00, the police informed him that the attacker wanted to report to the police, pay a fine, and compensate him with 5,000 THB, which Natthaphon rejected. The police called him again around noon asking if he wanted to give the attacker his phone number in order to have a direct apology and call it quits.

Natthaphon insisted that he did not want to talk to the attacker. “It was his clear intention to hit me on the head. If I didn’t have a helmet on, it would be bad. And how can you say you want an apology to end the issue?

“Yesterday evening [24 April], you shamelessly stated on Facebook live that I wasn’t media. But whether I am or not, you don’t have the right to hit anyone,” said Natthaphon, who has consulted with a team of lawyers on proceeding with a lawsuit.

Since the surge of mass protests calling for political and monarchy reform in 2020, the media have rarely been a target of civilian groups who hold different political opinions, and have been most at risk of being from the victims of police operations to disperse protests. The attack on Natthaphon has raised concerns about the safety of the media whose job is to present information from the field to their audiences.

Mos (nickname), the man who was punched after Natthaphon was attacked, said on 24 April that he went to the McDonalds after hearing of the attack. Admitting that he had consumed some alcohol, he insisted that he was punched as he was trying to ask why Benyaphakon attacked Natthaphon.

“I may have used a rather loud voice asking ‘That’s why I’m asking you’. And a little while later, there was somebody, but I don’t know if it was their group (Vocational Students or reporters). I don’t know what was in his fist, it made a scratch,” said Mos, who was taken inside McDonalds before dashing out toward the vocational group again, resulting in Oh bringing out his knife.

Mos, taken on 24 April.

Mos insisted that he did not have any weapon that night and had never been on the front line of protesters. Hearing the group’s video statement has made him feel even more worried about the safety of his life and others around him.

“Thai society is not a safe place for those who think differently. The law and what the police do is going nowhere. And I feel unsafe and frightened because of the the group’s video clip, because they have expressed satisfaction with hurting other people …” said Mos in an additional interview on 26 April.

Nattharavut Muangsuk, a coordinator at the Thai Media for Democracy Alliance (DemAll), a group of media and content creators that has been promoting democratic governance and press freedom, said the attack that night could not be allowed to drop as it was an action motivated by hatred, and if there is no proper conclusion, further retaliation may get out of control.

On reporters who could be seen exchanging words with the pro-monarchy group, he said that the anger did not lead to physical assault and he thinks that it was the presence of the media that prevented the situation from getting worse.

“We can see that the opposite side operated as a group, and made preparations to act against the person who was targeted. There has been surveillance and people have been positioned. If you look at the footage, you will see that it was all planned. They were on the lookout, and had a shirt ready to change into. When he was finished, he took off one shirt and put on another one.

“Were the media on the spot able to control the situation? Pretty much yes, because the violence did not get out of control, but the attacker who came with a target is something that is more worrisome,” said Natthrawut.

The DemAll coordinator also said that the authorities could either see the incident as a normal crime that can be concluded with a fine as carrying a club does not qualify for severe punishment, or it can be seen as a political crime stemming out of hatred and incitement. The interpretation will affect the severity of situations and media safety in the future.

Media armbands: a dilemma of media recognition

Mongkol Bangprapa, President of the Thai Journalists Association (TJA) said it is a lawful right and freedom for people to observe public events and distribute information on their communication channel. The act alone does not justify the use of force against those who do so.

“So if an assault took place, and there is a claim that someone is or is not media, we must look at the facts of the assault. If the act was by one side, the victim can certainly exercise their legal rights as normal.”

Since around July 2020, media associations had been providing a wide range of media practitioners with an armband with the intention of distinguishing the media from protesters and to ensure that both sides of the conflict have trustworthy media reporting the facts from the field.

A file photo of a media with an armband provided by the Thai media associations being grabbed by a crowd control police officer.

Mongkol said the media associations’ mandate is to protect the media that are registered with them, and to promote press freedom so that the public can benefit from free access to information. But in reality, the problem remains, as in other places in the world, over the definition of the ‘media’ in a changing media and technological landscape.

Individuals with a smartphone can certainly carry out journalism, but recognition of the status of journalist by the media associations can be something else. As the armbands are there to ensure that the wearer is a trustworthy entity amidst a confrontation, they have been allocated to those with clear affiliation and proof of published journalism.

In March 2022, the media associations opened another set of armband qualifications. One of the requirements is that the applicants must have their work presented on a website platform frequently. Merely having a social media platform does not make the cut.

A file photo of cameras from media agencies.

The DemAll coordinator Natthravut sees this requirement as problematic as there are many citizen journalists who have been covering news and protests even more often than the mainstream media via their Facebook pages such as Ratsadon News and Live Real.

Asked if there was a risk that social media outlets could be manipulated by the platform owner, Natthravut said the main issue here is to have something to prove that the applicant really works as a media professional and upholds journalistic ethics. Limitations or restrictions based on reporting through social media should not become a factor in deciding who is media.

“We have to look at what the function of the armband is. The function is to distinguish media and protesters. The media armband will only be used when there is an incident or movement in a protest.”

“If the function of the armband is just that, why do we have to create ever more complicated conditions in order to distribute the armbands to people who will work out there. If you want to treat someone as being media, you look at their content. Which platform the content is on is not the problem,” said Natthravut.

Since its establishment in 2021, DemAll has also distributed its own armbands to media practitioners. They have tried to be as inclusive as possible for independent journalists and those who work as freelancers with intention of creating an understanding that it is not accreditation that qualifies someone as a reporter, but their work.

“If we do not reach an understanding about this, we will fall under the discourse of the state that says if anyone in the media has no affiliation, they are not media. This is what we have been fighting against. DemAll promotes independent media in order to affirm their existence in society with the same prestige, rights and freedoms to do their work [as affiliated media]. If everyone says that the media must have a press card, then that is not the case. The law has not said this. It is something that we have thought up ourselves, that the media must have a press card. It is not needed.”

Citing limited resources, Mongkol said the associations are doing their best to have the armbands issued to trustworthy media workers. If the armbands were to fall into the hands of those who put themselves on any side of the conflict, such as protesters, police, or any third party, it would affect the credibility of the armband as a reason for being allowed to remain on the scene covering the news.

“We are trying to find the best opportunity, at least in conflict areas, for media to be able to do their duty. It may not be all, but at least there must be some number that is enough to help the people to access comprehensive information from the protests or the conflicts. The best way is to let every side know that they can be confident that those who have the armbands are working for the media, not other parties in disguise.”

The TJA president said the definition and accreditation of media cannot be determined by the state as it would pave the way for censorship when the state has become the media’s opponent. As the Thai media and academic circles are looking for the most inclusive definition of media, he asserted that citizen journalists that uphold the media ethics with a proven track record will eventually gain public trust, like elsewhere in the world.

He also urged the people who wanted to act as journalists to uphold the principle of media ethics, whether they are Thai or foreign, as it is ethics that protect the media in the exercise of press freedom as stated in the constitution. If journalism is sued, the Court will see whether or not the reporting was in accordance with media ethics and the professional code of conduct.

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